Thursday, October 1, 2009

Free Time Journal – Read and Enjoy!

I recently learned about a cool vacation option available to our neighbors across the Atlantic. In reviewing Free Time Journal by Derek L. Porteous, I was transported into another world, able to experience the beautiful countryside through the diary he kept during 5-months of traveling along the English canal system aboard his narrowboat, “Free Time.”
This account of his adventure intrigued me and, having never heard of a narrowboat before, I did a little online research. It seems that this mode of travel is similar to vacationing by RV here in the States but MUCH more relaxing.

I was immediately curious about the name of the boat, “Free Time.” Was it just a coincidence, I wondered? My curiosity was satisfied by Derek’s introduction in which he explains his quest for sailing adventure. He began with a 30-ft sailing yacht which was named “Free Time” at the suggestion of his wife, Pam. The joys and adventure of sailing were eventually overshadowed by the lack of comfort and convenience. Time spent on rough waters aboard the “extremely uncomfortable” yacht coupled with Pam’s susceptibility to becoming violently seasick pushed Derek toward exploring other boating options. The result? The original “Free Time” was sold and the second “Free Time,” a beautiful 55-ft narrowboat, was purchased. As Derek explains in his introduction:
"She had an all wood interior, a fixed double bed, hot water, TV, washing machine, central heating, and joy of joys, a proper flushing toilet… We had a comfortable boat, on which we could happily live for months at a time. Even Pam could not claim to get seasick on the mirror still canal waters. All we needed now was time to live the dream… It didn’t take long to realise that we needed to take early retirement."
After reviewing Free Time Journal, I am completely charmed by the idea of an extended narrowboat vacation. I recently had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about his adventure and would like to share his response.

Crystal: What is the daily routine like during an extended narrowboat adventure?

Derek: That is the thing about a daily routine on the narrowboat; there isn’t one. Sometimes you get up with the dawn chorus and cruise all the hours of daylight to feel righteous, but knackered at the end of the day. Sometimes you don’t get up early; in fact you don’t do anything all day. Mostly though, you have a leisurely breakfast, walk to the local shops for provisions, cruise for a couple of hours, a leisurely lunch, perhaps cruise for an hour in the afternoon walk around the town/village at which you have just moored, leisurely gin and tonic followed by a leisurely dinner either on-board or at a local restaurant. Is there a theme here?

Crystal: How easy or difficult is narrowboat navigation and can it be safely handled by a novice?

Derek: Narrowboats are really easy to control on a canal. There are lots of hire companies that are quite happy to rent their expensive assets to complete novices after only a very cursory explanation of where the pointy end is. Cruising in a shallow, narrow ditch, sometimes called a canal, is not hard. Whilst cruising through the locks, care needs to be taken, but it isn’t hard. More experience is a good idea if the boat ventures out onto rivers. These can be wide, fast and furious.

Crystal: How comfortable is life on a narrowboat over a period of several months and would you do it again?

Derek: Narrowboats are the floating equivalent of big caravans or RVs. Comfort is not an issue. Would we do it again? You bet. In fact we have been doing it every year since.

Crystal: What was your most exciting or memorable experience during your five-month narrowboat journey?

Derek: This must be a trip up the Thames passing under Tower Bridge and alongside the Houses of Parliament. This is the entry from Free Time Journal relating the day.
"Today was going to be both the pinnacle and literally the turning point of our trip. This was the fabled trip up the Thames. It is the ultimate trip for any narrow boater. It is held in awe by all us flat bottomed boat owners and will be the subject of dinner stories for years to some (be prepared…….). We rose about 9 o’clock (“we” being Pam and I). It took a good hour and a half rattling around before we could get Garry and Kath to stir. Great fry up breakfast and then a 20 minute stroll to Canary Wharf. Now all you doubters out there who just know they hate Canary Wharf and all it entails, you are wrong. Like me, you probably have never been there and hate the mere concept of it. Once visited, you will love it. As Kath said, it is like a mini Manhattan. The skyscrapers tower above as they are meant to do, the streets are wide and leafy, there are little green squares at regular intervals, transport links are great, and of course, there are all these underground malls. Don’t knock it until you have tried it. It is indeed a city within a city and has a very different feel to it from the general London experience. We locked out of Limehouse with the tide at 3.45 pm. The tide way was both very busy with trip boats and private boats and had a distinct chop to it caused by a combination of a brisk easterly wind and all those trip boats churning up the water. The trip was exhilarating. Apart from the chop, the tide swished us up to and under Tower Bridge. We rubbed shoulders with battle ships, catamarans, Edwardian cruises, and police launches. The trip, all three hours of it, fully deserved its reputation. Each mile held its own delights included being shooed out of the 75 metre exclusion zone for the House of Parliament. After Westminster Bridge the number of trip boats diminished and the river flattened out leaving a smooth passage. Pam was thankful of this having taken the brunt of a wave breaking over the bow resulting in a full, and I mean full, change of sodden clothes to a drier variety. We came off the tidal way at Brentford and locked through two locks to berth up for the evening. A short walk down Brentford High Street found a busy Italian restaurant. It was good to see Garry and Kath again, and they seemed to have enjoyed their day."

Wow! Now aren’t you as enchanted as I am? If you ever get to England, be sure to experience at least a few days aboard a narrowboat. If like me, international travel is improbable but you want to enjoy the adventure anyway, please visit the author’s website. While Free Time Journal is not available as of this posting through, it can be ordered through In researching shipping costs, I discovered that if you’re in the US, you should be prepared to spend about $7 for shipping.

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